Associated Press dispels myth of the ‘alt-right,’ places premium on truth

There is no question that the election of Donald Trump has given new energy and new power to angry, racist people in our country.

And with the elevation of Stephen Bannon to the highest levels of the White House and influence over the U.S. government, we are all being forced to reconsider how we use language to describe what we see and hear.

As a former journalist and now as a weekly columnist, it’s difficult to break years of training — and good manners — to call someone a racist, a misogynist, a bigot or a liar.

We often use language that skirts the topic a bit. We say the “comments were racist” or “he used a homophobic slur.”

Under the normal rules of political discourse, it was bad form — and ineffective — to call people names, even if the descriptors make clear what they are.

Trump, and Gov. Paul LePage here in Maine, have made such customary approaches to news coverage and commentary impossible. They simply no longer conform to the rules, which has given them an enormous advantage over other politicians and the news media, which has done its best to remain objective.

But the times are changing.

Stephen Bannon, the CEO of Donald Trump's campaign whom Trump has tapped to serve as his chief strategist in the White House. Carlo Allegri | Reuters

Stephen Bannon, the CEO of Donald Trump’s campaign whom Trump has tapped to serve as his chief strategist in the White House. Carlo Allegri | Reuters

This week, the Associated Press standards editor, the person in charge of setting editorial guidelines for one of the world’s most respected — and largest — news-gathering operations, released new guidance around using the term “alt-right” or “alternative right.”

I’ll summarize: John Daniszewski says that for the good of readers and for clarity, we have to stop dancing around such loosey-goosey words. Journalists have to tell the truth. They should “Be specific and call it straight.”

“Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience,” Daniszewski wrote this week. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.”

He goes further, with a reminder or what good journalism should look like.

“Again, whenever ‘alt-right’ is used in a story, be sure to include a definition: ‘an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,’ or, more simply, ‘a white nationalist movement,’” Daniszewski wrote on the AP’s website.

“Finally, when writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization,” he said. “We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.”

I’m guilty of this transgression myself. In a column earlier this year, I used the term “alt-right” as a way to avoid stating the obvious.

When you write anything that calls something or someone racist or speaks of white nationalism, you’re guaranteed vile blowback. And frankly, using such terms can immediately turn off some people, causing them to disregard the rest of the article or column.

But that’s not a good enough reason for journalists to contort themselves into knots trying to avoid offending some readers. The truth matters more.

As Daniszewski described it, “The movement criticizes ‘multiculturalism’ and more rights for non-whites, women, Jews, Muslims, gays, immigrants and other minorities. Its members reject the American democratic ideal that all should have equality under the law regardless of creed, gender, ethnic origin or race.”

It’s time to call such things what they are: racist.

If you say people of color are the enemy, as the governor has, you’re a racist.

Same thing if you lie and say that black people commit 90 percent of crime in the state when the numbers don’t back you up, if you encourage violence against black men, and if you say immigrants carry disease and are terrorists.

You’re not part of the “alt-right.” Let’s be precise: You’re a racist.

When I was studying journalism in college, we would have near daily tests on the Associated Press Stylebook. We called it the “bible,” and we did our best to uphold its tenets.

Even now, many years removed from my days as a reporter and an editor, I keep a copy of the Stylebook close to help me sort out tricky questions of grammar and usage, and I keep the online tool on my phone. The AP still sets the standard for getting it right.

As our country and the news media adapt to the new world of a Trump presidency, I expect many more rules around how we cover politics and government will have to change.

The president-elect’s unprecedented lying and white nationalist rhetoric were just the beginning. We’ll all have to adapt and resist a new order that pushes the bounds of truth, decency and governance to their very limits.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at